Biodegradable, natural and non-toxic are environmentally friendly promises plastered across many household products, but a CBC Marketplace investigation found that a number of them amount to little more than greenwashing.
"There's so much greenwash on shelves today, it's just overwhelming," said Adria Vasil, a columnist and author of the Ecoholic book series. "It's like a tsunami of greenwash really."
Figuring out whether products are actually environmentally friendly can be challenging since companies don't have to post the ingredients on cleaning products.
"For companies, they think, 'Consumers aren't looking too deeply. We can bamboozle them.'" said Marc Stoiber, who worked in advertising for 20 years but now helps companies go green.
1. Dawn Antibacterial dish soap
The labels on Dawn's antibacterial dish soap feature baby seals and ducklings with the promise that "Dawn helps save wildlife." Dawn donates soap to clean up animals after oil spills and gives money to rescue groups, but the product itself contains an ingredient harmful to animals.
Triclosan, an antibacterial agent, was recently declared officially toxic to aquatic life and it is an ingredient environmental groups have called for to be banned. "We don't need more of this in our rivers and streams," said Vasil. "And it's certainly not saving wildlife."
Proctor & Gamble, maker of Dawn products, refused an interview request by Marketplace. In a statement, the company said, "All of our Dawn dishwashing products and ingredients are in compliance with current legal and regulatory requirements in Canada."
2. Biodegradable J Cloth
The decades-old J Cloth recently came out with a new product it suggests is an environmentally friendly alternative to paper towels: Biodegradable J Cloth. That and an official-looking biodegradable seal may lead some to believe it can be composted.
When CBC Marketplace called the manufacturer, they said the cloth can be thrown into compost bins. "J Cloth is composed of cellulose fibres, which are 100 per cent derived from wood pulp. These fibres are organic in nature, and biodegradable," they stated.
However, a Marketplace expert notes it can't go in the green bin because municipalities regulate what is certified compostable. Anything not approved is sent to a landfill. "Nothing biodegrades in landfills," notes Vasil. "You'll find 40-year-old hot dogs in landfills."
3. T-fal Natura frying pan
While the T-fal Natura frying pan uses 100 per cent recycled aluminum, an environmental benefit, there are other concerns with how misleading the label is.
The label advertises the pan as free of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, a manmade chemical used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware and a likely human carcinogen. The fact is there's never been PFOA used in T-fal frying pans, but the company has come under criticism for using it in the manufacturing process.
Marketplace called the company to ask whether the new "PFOA free" label means they've stopped using it in factories, and they said it's still in use. "Independent analysis … has confirmed that no PFOA is present in any of T-fal's non-stick cookware products," they added.
4. Organic Melt ice remover
One of the key concerns around using road salt to melt ice is the damage salt does to aquatic life when it reaches rivers, streams and groundwater. Organic Melt ice remover advertises itself as being "environmentally safe" and an "agricultural-based product" with sugar beets.
When Marketplace checked with the company, it revealed that only three per cent of its product is sugar beets by weight and the rest is rock salt — that despite the fact that the ingredient list puts beets first.
There's no requirement for companies to put the main ingredient first on the list. The company, Eco-solutions, told Marketplace that using sugar beets makes the product work better so less is needed and overall there's less salt going into the environment.
5. Vim PowerPro Naturals
The label on Vim PowerPro Naturals bathroom cleaner says 98 per cent natural ingredients. But as Vasil notes, "The word natural is totally unregulated."
Since companies aren't required to list ingredients for cleaning products on the back, Unilever has decided not to post them — or reveal them even when asked. "Unilever does not disclose specified ingredients information. However, if it's a medical necessity for this information, Unilever would be more than happy to work with your physician," a customer service agent said when Marketplace called them.
Marketplace commissioned a test on the product. Like many cleaning products, it largely contained water. When water was eliminated, one-quarter of the product was found to be petroleum-based chemicals. Unilever stated, "Our 'naturally derived' claim is based on all the ingredients in the product, including … water."